This essay aims to delineate and elucidate the Syrian conflict using the framework of two theories: realism and constructivism. Particular attention will be paid to the origin of the Syrian Civil War, along with the major actors involved in this regional, and now international, conflict.
“The people want to topple the regime” was the anti- government graffiti on the wall of a local school in Daraa city painted by a group of Syrian children on March 2011. Those children were arrested and tortured by the local security authorities (Diehl, 2012: 7). This act eventually led to an anti- governmental uprising due to the outrageous reaction of community over children’s mistreatment after incarceration by the local security authorities. The uprising demanded release of children, justice, freedom as well as equality for all people. At the core, these peaceful demonstrations were considered to be against the sectarian and family dictatorship because the political power was mainly held by the Alawite elite (Diehl, 2012). In response to these demonstrations, the Syrian government planned to enforce security forces for the protestors to suppress them. The deadly aggression used by the government to oppose dissent led to protests across the country calling for the president to resign. Violence soon escalated as the government battled hundreds of rebel brigades. This rebellion further turned into a full- fledged civil war between the Free Syrian army and the Syrian regime (Thompson, 2016). The main allegation that the Syrian regime associated with the protestors was that they were Islamic Al- Qaeda’s extremist terrorist gangs who were supported and funded by the various countries such as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia as well as the USA that tries to seek peace with Israel (Sommier, 2014). Similarly, the same Syrian regime who was supported by Russia, China and Iran, was present in the front fire line with Israel (Fisher, 2012). Since then, the regional and international intervention has proven to be a key factor in the power struggle as the government and opposition have received financial, political and military support. This has directly intensified the fighting and allowed it to continue; Syria is effectively being used as a proxy battlefield (Wimmen and Asseburg, 2012).
As of February 2016, the Syrian Centre for Policy Research places the death toll at 470,000. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has claimed that the conflict has created a critical humanitarian crisis, internally displacing 6.1 million people. An additional 4.8 million Syrians have fled abroad to seek asylum. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has also reported that more than 117,000 Syrians have been detained or have disappeared since the start of the conflict. These detention facilities, most of which are administered by government forces, have seen thousands of detainees die after torture and ill-treatment. The introduction of the ISIS to the conflict in 2013 added several unbounded violations, including a blockade on humanitarian aid from reaching civilians in the ISIS-controlled territory, heedless artillery attacks and the use of child soldiers (Human Rights Watch, 2016).
The study of international relations provides a comprehensive understanding of the significant issues that our globalised world faces. In his book ‘International Relations Theories’, Steve Smith proposes that “theories are like different coloured lenses: if you put one of them in front of your eyes, you will see things differently” (Smith, Kurki and Dunne, 2016: 11). In light of this, various currents in international relations offer different perspectives about the Syrian conflict. Realism approaches a dissimilar view than constructivism.
Realism uses an explanatory, as opposed to a normative, approach to examining International Relations. Three core assumptions are made: (1) states are the key players in the international field, also known as “statism” (Dunne and Schmidt, 2017: 109); (2) states function as isolated, rational actors that are moved by their self-interests and egoism that they need to fulfil (Ikenberry and Parsi, 2009); (3) the international system is an anarchic one and it does not have an overarching authority (Mearsheimer, 2001: 30). Hence, states assure their survival and security through their own material capabilities and self-assist (Waltz, 1979: 213). These assumptions lead realism to assume, at a core level, a pessimistic outlook wary of constant threat and danger. State actors are thought to be driven by motivations to survive and dominate, aiming to gain favourable positions of power and reduce the potential for their demise (Gellman, 1988). The competition and insecurity inherent within the anarchic system will compel states consciously to adopt a balancing response when confronted with other actors’ sudden concentrations of power. Therefore, they will either develop their own material resources (internal balancing) or combine their material resources with other states’ (external balancing). This provides evidence that, for realism, alliances are not motivated by shared ideas and values, but through national self-interests and raison d’état (Morgenthau, 1948).
In realism, it should be noted that the states are not equal and are placed in a hierarchical order as per their power. In an anarchical system, the only way to defend and survive is to use the military power (Slaughter, 2011). Evil and egoistic passions are given primary emphasis by the realists, as Donnelly mentioned in 2000 “the tragic presence of evil in all political actions” (Morgenthau, 1946: 203). This outlook necessitates that politics is viewed as a struggle for power with the “shadow of war” ever-present (Aron, 1970: 36); mainly due to the irreconcilable aspirations of the states (Carr, 1946). According to this, every state would try to obtain as much power as possible. But in case there is an imbalance power, the likelihood of war becomes high primarily, because the stronger state may attack the weaker state without sanction or any loss of itself. However, this idea about power and equipoise is not only encompasses the military power, but also encompasses the economic power. This means that states whose economies are growing are also gaining more power. Therefore, attention of realists is focused on the economy of a state as it is related to its power (Mearsheimer, 2016). Moreover, realists believe that the non-governmental organizations do not possess the military power to compete with states in the international system. This means that the role played by the UN is limited (Dunne and Schmidt, 2017: 106), as the main actors (states) in the international system are not only concerned in achieving absolute gains, but also in obtaining relatively higher gains than the others involved.
Considering all of the above, strategies like mutual mistrust, selfishness, power-seeking, recklessness as well as survival-securing are considered to be capable for producing anarchical structures amongst polities along with security dilemmas, unrestricted politics of national interests, violence and threats of war.
In the specificity of the Syrian case, the current and complex Syrian conflict can be analysed using the theoretical formulations of realism. In this regard, the al-Assad government’s support from Russia, China and Iran (together with its ally Hezbollah) can be viewed as an effort to limit the USA’ power in the international system. These polities aim to effectively prevent the USA from gaining any sort of advantage over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region by forming alliances with Syria and vetoing any involvement of the United Nations Security Council (Yan, 2013).
The role of Russia since the start of the conflict has been to supply al-Assad with technical and military advisers as well as weapons. At the end of September 2015, Russia has been involved in direct military operations targeting al-Assad’s opponents, although they claim their intervention is aimed at eliminating ISIS (Spaulding, 2015). With Russia’s clout in world politics waning since the Cold War, it seeks to act as an antagonist to the USA’s influence in the region, under the framework of a “zero-sum” competition for power (Dunne and Schmidt, 2017: 110). Additionally, Russia’s interests lie in holding influence and stabilising both the Eastern Mediterranean (Litsas, 2017) and Syria itself with its Russian-dependent economy. This further poses a question regarding whether or not Russia can be sure about its position and safety of its economic interests if the Syrian state would collapse (Freedman, 2010).
The USA’s influence in the region has also seen the inclusion of another actor in the conflict, Iran, as there was a breeze of uneasiness in between the USA and Iran government “it is clear that Iran is now a centrepiece of American Policy” (Sick et al., 2008: 1). Iran’s wariness of the United States has been defensive, focusing mainly on the acceleration of their nuclear development and achieving the internal balancing. Iran’s interest in the Syrian conflict is therefore one of state security and managing any potential threats that might come in the form of the USA, Israel, Turkey, and the Sunni Gulf states (Laub, 2017). In addition, a religious motive has also played a part in Iran’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War. The first Supreme Leader of Iran, Imam Khomeini, has previously proclaimed that Allah commands Muslims to defend each other against external threats. This has also justified Iran’s support for Palestinians whom Iran regards as being oppressed by Israel (Segall, 2012). Iran thus holds a strategically powerful position in the conflict, having allied with Syria, Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The guiding principle of China’s national policy is state sovereignty, holding an almost sacred status. The People’s Republic of China is strongly opposed to any unnecessary intrusion from foreign powers. In terms of the Syrian conflict, China has utilized its veto power to impede any proposals suggesting foreign intervention, with a particular interest in blocking intervention led by the USA as well as the other Western countries. Although China does not have direct vested interests in the economic or humanitarian state of Syria, it has highlighted its concern that foreign states are using the prospect of intervention to further their own national interests by propping up regimes that are favourable to them. As such, it can be concluded that the interests of China lie in preventing “the establishment of legal or procedural precedents for military interventions by the international community against sovereign states, except under extremely rare and narrow circumstances” (Swaine, 2012: 9). This formal and explicit statement is also mean that the Chinese regime desires to stop the attempt to interfere in China by the Western states, including the USA.
In contrast to Russian and Chinese stances on the Syrian conflict, the USA actively supports the anti-Assad forces. Its aims centre around exploiting the power vacuum created as a result of the Syrian Civil War in order to further establish its influence and position in the region, in addition to that of their regional allies. Moreover, the presence of political rivals in the form of Moscow and Teheran requires American policy to focus on curtailing any power plays in the region from such forces (Abdo, 2011). American action in the region is also driven by the fact it views that the Syrian regime as a sponsor of terrorism, as an evidenced by its support of the Hezbollah and Palestinian groups in the preceding years. Additionally, fears surrounding the use of weapons of mass destruction by the Syrian and Iranian regimes form another key aspect of the American stance on Syria, due to the possible catastrophic effects on the regional security (Sharp and Blanchard, 2013).
Syrian has also become a focal point of attempts to gain power and influence between two bitter enemies in the region: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudi rulers view that the overthrow of the Assad regime as a key step to weakening Iran’s grip on the region; the subsequent balance of power would undoubtedly favour Saudi Arabia and establish the superiority of the Saudi monarchy vis-à-vis Iran (Cockburn, 2016).
The realist lens also provides insight into the Turkish role in the Syrian conflict. With the Turkish armed forces conducting interventions in the form of purportedly anti-ISIS airstrikes on July 2015, it is clear that Turkey has vested interests in the conflict (Yeginsu, 2015). In fact, these interests heavily revolve around opposing any projections of power by Iran and Russia at its borders or even in the Middle East. Furthermore, a key driver to Turkish action in the region is to counter the growing power of the Syrian Kurds, which lends itself to the possibility of the resurgence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); a revival that would be against Turkish national interest and a direct threat to the AK Party’s stability and popularity (?idi?, 2017). In addition, replacing the current Syrian Alawite regime with a government allied to the Sunni Islamist movement would align with Ankara’s interests; helping the Justice and Development Party government strengthen its influence in the region whilst hampering Tehran’s efforts of ideological and political expansion in the Middle East (Barkey, 2012).
In light of all the above, the realism perspective undoubtedly provides unique explanations regarding the motives of the numerous foreign powers that involved in the Syrian conflict. The basis of the realism lens relies on its assumption that states involved in the international arena act according to their own self-interests in concert with the theory of the balance of power which states that the political units in a system will systematically seek to counterbalance the increase in power of other units (Waltz, 1979). However, viewing the Syrian Civil War purely from a power-struggle perspective can only provide an account of one section of the conflict. The reasons behind Assad’s brutality, the causes behind the peaceful protests turning into a civil war and the fragmented rebel forces’ motivations are not answered satisfactorily through the realism theory, and so another perspective is needed: constructivism.
The theory of constructivism was developed towards the end of the 20th century as a challenge to the rationalism and positivism of the theory of realism (Steele, 2017). The advocates for this school of thought within international relations include Alexander Wendt, Nicholas Onuf and Friedrich Kratochwilas. Constructivism differs from realism in that it emphasises the importance of social ideas and actions in constructing and shaping international relations (Alder, 1997). Constructivism places “holism, idealism and identity” (Barnett, 2017: 147) at the core of explaining states’ behaviours and interests. These interests are endogenous to the state, and are dynamically shaped by changes in social interactions in evolving geopolitical contexts (Wendt, 1992: 397). In other words, this theory views that the international structure as a “social structure infused with ideational factors to include norms, rules and law” (Viotti and Kauppi 2010: 277). The system in which states interact is constructed by sets of norms composed of ideas and beliefs shared by different actors; changes in the international system follow any changes in these sets of norms (Jackson and Sørensen, 2007).
The term structure according to constructivism refers to the interactions between agents (individuals, non-state actors and states) that take place on the backdrop of a social, historical and cultural context. The relationship between agents and structure is interdependent: the actions of the agents have a direct effect on the structure, which in turn delineates the identities and interests of the agents (Reus-Smit and Snidal, 2008). Once the identities and interests of the agents are defined, these then shape the agents’ actions. In consequence, the stage of international politics is formed as a result of the continuous process of social interaction. This sentiment is famously echoed by Nicholas Onuf who states that we live in a “world of our making” (Onuf, 1989: 341), wherein nothing is inherently existent or given but created in each interaction with others.
In accordance, Alexander Wendt contends that “anarchy is what states make of it” (Wendt, 1992: 395). The connotation of this statement is that the anarchic nature of international politics does not innately result in conflict as realists argue, rather, conflict occurs as a result of the expectations and meanings placed on others during social interactions. These interactions involve each actor creating constructs of a ‘self’ and an ‘other’, which are perceived as allies, rivals or enemies (Wendt, 1992: 404). In response to these constructs, the agents then adopt corresponding behaviours ranging from alliance to aggression. Therefore, despite conditions of anarchy, alliances can be formed between friendly states on account of their shared values and ideas. Likewise, the categorization of states as enemies can result in war. In contrast to the realism model which argues that international politics is driven exclusively by self-interests and rational calculations, Wendt’s model proposes that politics is a construction based on ideology, identity and social interaction.
Ted Hopf one of the constructivists who argue that anarchy is an “imagined community” where a “continuum of anarchies is possible” (Hopf, 1998: 174). This is in contrast to the realist proposal which states that self-help and power politics are essential features of anarchy. Constructivists, on the other hand, perceive self-help and power politics as institutions which affect the structure of international relations (Wendt, 1992). As a direct result of this perception, constructivists believe that the use of force is not a pre-requisite to the survival of a state (Weber, 2014).
Evidently, constructivism provides a more optimistic outlook towards international politics. The static view taken by the realist theory places balance of power as an inevitable consequence of the international system wherein chaos is unavoidable, resulting in war and conflict. On the other hand, constructivists believe that conflict is not inevitable, rather threats of conflict can be extinguished through the analysis and restructuring of identities. In brief, whilst constructivists accept the presence of anarchy in the international system, they argue that its effects are dependent on the subjective meanings we place on it.
In concise terms, realism identifies patterns of behaviour in a world that is apparent and objectively observable. This notion is rejected in constructivism which argues that the world is socially constructed and therefore, not objectively verifiable (Reus-Smit and Snidal, 2008). An inherent difference between the theories of realism and constructivism lies in the method through which they both approach the concept of ideas in the political world. Constructivism stresses that ideas take a central role in the world of politics, whereas realism is completely indifferent to its importance.
Despite the evident differences between the two outlooks, both constructivism and realism are not completely dissimilar. Both theories hold that states are the “fundamental actors in international politics” (Weber, 2014: 264). With regards to constructivism, this belief allows for the presence of non-state actors but places the greatest power in the constructed relationships between states in terms of the effect on the international structure. An additional shared feature between the two theories lies in an underlying commitment to an “epistemology indebted to positivism” which provides an outlook through which to understand the world (Fierke, 2016: 167).
Following the aforementioned overview of constructivism, including both its differences and similarities with realism, this theory can now be applied in the analysis of the Syrian conflict. Its emphasis on the non-material factors and inclusion of history, ideas and identity allow a structured analysis of the convoluted aspects of the Syrian conflict.
The Syrian protesters who peacefully demonstrated publicly for democracy were brought to the streets through the awareness of a new collective national identity. They became aware of the ‘self’ and its irreconcilability with the oppressive ‘other’. Assad forged a new ‘self-identity’ in response to the changing political climate, an identity of a legitimate ruler aiming to hold power despite the efforts of the ‘other’ (i.e. terrorists and dissidents). This led him to the brutal repression of protests. However, the new national identity constructed by the Syrian people is far more sectarian, with divisions along ethnic and religious lines. This explains the fragmentations amongst the opposition forces; which resulted in further complications.
Applying the constructivism theory to the Syrian conflict allows to understand the novel structure which emerged as a direct result of the mounting internal chaos and led to the formation of subnational identities. The initial protests saw the construction of the identity of the Syrian people who called for a new national order; this initial cohesion gave way and disintegrated into numerous identities along both religious and ethnic lines. The fragmentation of the anti-Assad faction resulted in a now disunited front, consisting of a rapidly growing number of groups who designated themselves under the ‘Sunni’, ‘Islamist’ or ‘Kurdish’ banners. Such groups regarded the ‘Alawite’, ‘Kafir’ or ‘Arabic’ groups respectively as the ‘other’ and hence, as enemies to be defeated. These new sub-national identities naturally came to oppose one another in addition to their initial common enemy. As such, the people were forced to engage in inter-subjective relationships which formed a key factor in the subsequent maelstrom that has characterized the Syrian civil war, moving towards ever increasing sectarianism along the Sunni-Shia, Secular-Islamist and Arab-Kurd splits. Such turbulence lends itself to Assad’s promotion of a self-image as the legitimately elected president and regional champion of the Arab and Shia identity. In accordance, those who had taken up arms against his reign were designated as ‘Islamic terrorists’ and ‘Sunni fanatical groups’ who have the illegitimate support of his Western and Gulf enemies. In summary, the contradictory ideas, identities and perceptions are succinctly explained using the constructivism approach as tools to understand the Syrian civil war internally between Assad and the various opposition groups.
The constructivism approach also provides an interesting interpretation of the various different external interventions into the Syrian conflict. The formation of opposing groups in the form of Saudi Arabia and Turkey on one side; and Iran, Hezbollah and Assad on the other side, can be extrapolated as a continuation of the Sunni-Shia conflict, the roots of which stem from historic differences in the perception of Islam’s religious sub-identities. Similarly, historical differences in ideology also explains the antagonistic views of the USA and Russia on the Syrian conflict. The United States views itself as the international defender of peace, democracy and liberalism and hence opposes the perceived illiberalism embodied by the Russian, Iranian and Assad forces. On the other hand, Russia, along with China, view themselves as powers that champion national sovereignty and international law in contrast to America’s flagrant international interventions. Such self-constructed identity is evident in Russia’s use of its veto power, highlighting its anti-interventional stance (Averre and Davies, 2015).
Concluding the key aspects, the dual-natured Syrian conflict is both a civil war between Assad and the Syrian rebel forces, and an international war fought though proxies by external states supporting one or another of these sides. Realism can be used to explain the war’s international dimension as it highlights the material interests that reasonably give account for the intervention of external actors such as the USA, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, constructivism focused more on the effects of identity and ideology on behaviour, as well as how the protests turned into a civil war with religious and ethnic divides and how the war morphed into an international struggle. In short, constructivism provides a highly nuanced analysis of the Syrian conflict. This detailed account can be argued to be stronger than the realism approach due to its emphasis on social factors and the significance of ideas, allowing the explanation of factors which are beyond the scope of realism. Despite this, realism is still the theory of choice in terms of explaining international conflict, with a large backing of historical evidence in its favour. However, Michael Barnett takes an opposing stance and states that realism falls short in explaining the numerous vital factors which have played a part in the region, including the absence of large scale military build-up and arms races, the prominence of symbolism over frank military force, and the widespread regional instability (Barnett, 1998).
In conclusion, both theories of realism and constructivism aim to explain the causes of conflicts between and within states in the globalised arena of international relations. The former theory relies on the ‘struggle for power’ assumption, while the latter focuses on the ‘centrality of identity’. Realism explains the Syrian conflict as a power struggle between different state actors, while constructivism identifies one of the causes of the conflict as the increasing rivalry between minority groups within Syria and the prevention of a unified Syrian identity. On their own, each theory is limited in its interpretative capability. It can, therefore, be argued that the complexity of the Syrian conflict requires both theories to be utilised to comprehensively understand the crux and dynamics of conflict. This is crucially important especially with regards to the involvement of politically unique actors such as the ISIS. A careful and deep critical analysis of this conflict, one of the worst of our times, is required to provide politicians with a sound understanding to better guide policy making.